On Saturday, March 10th, the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto was home to the TEDxUofT Conference, organized by the TEDxUofT team.

The conference, sponsored by U of T, UTM, and Manulife, comprised of 12 TED talks, all of which revolved around the concept of “deconstruct.”

The talks were divided into four sessions with three talks per session.

U of T’s Jazz Orchestra, part of the Jazz Studies program at U of T, played lively renditions of “Groove Merchant” composed by Fat Jones, “African Skies” by Michael Brecker, and Fred Stern’s “Aim High.” “Can you imagine university students being here at 8 a.m.?” joked the band’s conductor, Gordon Foot, before he thanked the crowd.

Comments from David Boroto, an engineering science student at U of T and the host of this year’s TEDx conference, followed the Jazz Orchestra. He began with a land acknowledgment before explaining the format of the conference. He then divulged perhaps the most important piece of information for any individual—the WiFi password—before introducing the first speaker, UTM’s own Dr. Ulrich Krull.

Dr. Ulrich Krull, the vice-president at the University of Toronto, principal of University of Toronto Mississauga, and a leading analytical chemist, explained that the size of a material is related to its behaviour. He spoke about beaming light into nanoparticles, the smallest part of a cell, in order to see how cells communicate and perhaps detect the onset of a disease. “We very much look forward to contributing a new tool to personalized medicine,” Krull concluded.

Krull was followed by Jeremy Wang, an engineering science student at U of T and the CTO of The Sky Guys, a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) service-providing company. Wang elaborated upon the clashes in personality that often occurred between engineers and business people when they worked in close proximity. “We live in an innovation economy and it is diverse skills and perspectives which enable creativity. It isn’t acceptable to think that we can get by on stereotypes and that there is nothing to learn from people even when they bother us,” Wang revealed. He offered to help engineers and businesspeople bridge the gap. “There are two types of thinking, and today, everybody needs to know a bit about building and a bit about selling to survive.”

Jeremy Wang was followed by Kona Williams, who delivered an emotionally-charged TED talk on her experience as Canada’s first Indigenous forensic pathologist. “The irony is not lost on me that I am four times more likely to end up on my own autopsy table than just about anybody else,” she said.

“Some of the key questions in any death investigation are: who died, where did they die, when did they die, by what means, and why?” Williams told the audience, and recounted, “The ‘why’ is something I get asked a lot in my job and I get asked a lot as a First Nations person: why don’t they just move, why don’t they get jobs, why don’t they join civilization, why don’t they take care of their kids, why don’t they stop wasting my tax dollars, why don’t they just get over it?”

Williams recalled the horrific legacy of residential schools that continues today, and referenced the murder of Tina Fontaine, among numerous other Indigenous children, to explain the why she referred to previously. She said, “Imagine generations of broken families, try to imagine unimaginable loss […]. I hope now we’re beginning to understand why.”

Williams implored, “What I need everybody to understand is that there is a lot of work that needs to be done and non-Indigenous people in this country need to also answer their own whys,” She added, “I hope that from this talk, that you are beginning to think and understand and know about the why.”

Williams’ talk marked the end of the first session.

The second session began with Helen Kontozopoulos, co-founder and co-director of the Department of Computer Science’s Innovation Lab at U of T. Kontozopoulos spoke on the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution that is currently underway, and both its positive and negative aspects. She spoke first of AI used by corporations to track internet habits of users to detect their moods and manipulate them for profit. “If I know how you’re feeling, and how you’re doing, and I can track your patterns at data points, I can manipulate you,” explained Kontozopoulos. “Feeling sad? Shopping is the perfect therapy. Feeling angry? Donate to my political party. Vote for me.”

She then switched tracks and explained that AI could also be used for good and cited Jacque—an AI one of her students was working on that would have conversations with individuals to help them speak French, as an example. “The [AI] revolution is a complicated conversation that we need to have,” Kontozopoulos admitted, “And the biggest thing that I need you to think about, is that you should be having transparent conversations with AI.”

Kontozopoulos was followed by Dr. Khalid Almilaji, a U of T health informatics student. Almilaji, who led humanitarian campaigns in Syria, spoke on the power of volunteering by telling the stories of two volunteers in Syria, who he called, Dr. X and Mr. S, whose work had inspired him. “Volunteers provide service which is qualitatively different; they create a positive atmosphere and irreplaceable environment. They have a social impact which is far greater than that of those who are paid,” proclaimed Almilaji. “As Dr. X said, ‘There is nothing sweeter than volunteering’—how you volunteer is up to you.”

Matt Russo was the final speaker of the second session. Russo, who holds degrees in jazz and astrophysics from U of T is the founder of SYSTEM Sounds. SYSTEM Sounds is an outreach project that translates the rhythms of the cosmos into music.

The third session began with a musical interlude by U of T’s a-cappella group “Tunes. Beats. Awesome,” currently celebrating its 15th year of formation in 2018.

Sasha Weiditch, a science communicator and Ph.D. candidate at UTM took the stage after TBA. Weiditch spoke about combatting the stereotypes about being a female scientist and making science more accessible through Instagram. “I, too, am learning how to be a scientist; how to communicate my work so that it is communicated with enthusiasm and accuracy. I wanted to do my work not to just live in my lab, but so it could [also] relate to people and help them,” Weiditch told the audience. “Science isn’t defined by a certain subset of people with a certain subset of skills, but in fact encompasses everyone,”

Weiditch was followed by Syrus Marcus Ware. Ware, an artist, activist, and a core member of Black Lives Matter Toronto, referenced Dr. Tiffany Kang’s concept of fungibility to explain the lens that black bodies were perceived with. Ware said, “This helps us to deconstruct why black bodies are treated the way they are on this land.”

Ware talked about his two projects—activist love letters and larger-than-life activist portraits—that he began in order to support black activists. According to Ware, black activists live intersectional lives that put them at a greater risk of burnout. “If activists are soldiers,” said Ware, “Then art is a street medic, supporting people on frontlines.”

Dan Dolderman, a psychologist at U of T, was the last speaker of the third session. Dolderman made use of drumming, singing, and poetry to reflect on issues prevailing our society today. “Why is Indigenous voices silenced by lies? Guantanamo’s innocence hidden inside, a billion Muslims dehumanized, Indian farmers committing suicide, native youth committing suicide, transgendered people committing suicide, sex trade workers committing suicide, famous singers committing suicide, depressed white dudes committing suicide, Hollywood committing suicide, why is humanity committing suicide?” he wondered. “The way forward, in a destabilizing world, where an individual can wield a message of mass destruction, is connection,” Dolderman concluded, “It’s dialogue, it’s trust, it’s vulnerability, it’s sharing joy, and remember how to play again. It’s humour.”

Dolderman’s haunting talk was followed by Jay Pooley, a production designer and instructor at U of T, took the stage. Pooley elaborated on his need for creating things and the satisfaction that came from it. “Life is made up of the small moments, the things we make,” Pooley shared, and added, “It’s making your bed, it’s making a meal, it’s fixing your door. These things that we make, make us.”

John Vervaeke, a cognitive scientist who has been an instructor at U of T since 1994, spoke about unifying the mind through cognitive science. “Cognitive science is putting into our hands the potential to put the mind back together again, and back together against, into the world.”

The last speaker of the talk was Sabrina Cruz, a mathematics student at U of T, and the creator of Nerdy and Quirky—a YouTube channel that currently boasts an upwards of 184,000 subscribers. “We had something to say,” said Cruz about why she and other YouTubers decided to start a channel, you want to say?”

Each session—except the fourth— was punctuated by a break during which attendees could talk to the TEDx speakers, stop by sponsor tables to enter giveaways, take pictures in the photobooth or with the “X” of TEDxUofT, lounge around on beanbag chairs, and partake in the food catered by Karine’s, Banh Mi Boys, and La Sem Patisserie.


This article has been corrected.
  1. March 22, 2018 at 8 p.m.: The theme “deconstruction” was changed to “deconstruct” in the second paragraph.
    Notice to be printed on March 26, 2018 (Volume 44, Issue 24).
  2. March 22, 2018 at 8 p.m.: The subtitle had an incorrect number of speakers. It was actually 12, not 11.
    Notice to be printed on March 26, 2018 (Volume 44, Issue 24).
  3. March 22, 2018 at 8 p.m.: Syrus Marcus Ware pronouns were changed to he/him/his.
    Notice to be printed on March 26, 2018 (Volume 44, Issue 24).